Stack of Books
Dana Harbert, Director of Admission, Orton-Gillingham Fellow and Nancy Martin, Former Reading Chair

Innovative Approaches to Teaching Reading

Enhancing the Student Learning Process

Visitors to Eagle Hill often ask about the Eagle Hill method or about whether we adhere exclusively to a particular method of teaching reading with which they might be familiar. The expectation is that they will hear about very specific practices for teaching reading as well as other traditional school subjects. And, of course, teachers at Eagle Hill have available in their repertoire many, many of the “methods” to which this question refers. None of these, however, hints at the real genius of Eagle Hill School, which is about a simple but fundamental and profound insight about the inevitability of human diversity.

Reading CLass


The remarkable success of students at Eagle Hill School follows from a deep commitment to the idea that difference is the norm—that each student is better understood as unique. As educators, our work is to understand each student’s constellation of talents, challenges, interests, hopes, and fears—and then together design school experiences that develop and showcase those talents, confront challenges, pursue and expand interests, allay fears, and realize those hopes and dreams.  Thus, the hallmark of the approach to teaching reading at Eagle Hill is our ability to understand each student’s learning profile and to completely customize each student’s program. Students entering Eagle Hill decode and comprehend with varying degrees of proficiency, and our Reading Department helps to build a student’s schedule with a full understanding of these skills.

For example, a student working on decoding skills will be placed in an intensive reading tutorial class, whereas a student whose primary need is to strengthen comprehension will be placed in classes that teach comprehension for fiction and for reading academic text as well. While all courses in the Reading Department include reading comprehension and vocabulary development, some focus on specific reading skills such as academic reading, word attack skills, spelling, and fluency. The beauty of our nine-term schedule is that it allows students to take multiple reading and literature classes concurrently.

At Eagle Hill, we also know that the teacher-student relationship is fundamental to a student’s success. Being placed not only in the proper class but also with the correct teacher is another key consideration. Our reading teachers are professionally trained, this year alone completing over six hundred hours of professional development, as well as independent reading and technology training. This commitment allows us to offer an array of multi-structured approaches, which include the following:

  • Orton-Gillingham (Wilson, Spire, and Barton)
  • Lindamood Bell (LiPS, Visualization and Verbalization, Seeing Stars)
  • Structured Word Inquiry
  • Project Read

When we design a student’s schedule at Eagle Hill, we consider the student’s profile, the reading approach, and the cohort we are creating in the classroom. It is important for a student to be learning with classmates who share similar goals, and there are three pillars that form the underlying supports in all of our reading classes: a multi-structured reading approach, assistive technology, and independent reading.  

The first of these pillars is a multisensory, systematic, and cumulative approach to teaching reading, writing, and spelling that provides the student with direct instruction highlighting the structure of the language as well as rules and generalizations. Students work from smaller to larger units and from simple to complex words or word parts, and they are taught using materials that occur most frequently to least frequently. Approaches of this type are used mainly for students who have difficulty with word attack skills, decoding, and letter-word identification, or for students who need to improve their reading fluency. A student working on decoding skills has available reading tutorials based on the Orton-Gillingham principles, the Lindamood LiPS program, or Structured Word Inquiry, and depending on the student being taught, the teacher may decide to use one particular approach over another.  

True to the innovative nature of Eagle Hill School, we continue to explore new and better ways to teach our students to read and write. For example, in 2018, our reading teachers were trained in Structured Word Inquiry (SWI), another method of teaching reading. Along with the Orton-Gillingham approach and other programs, we introduced our students to Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) as a way of understanding how the written language works. SWI is a linguistically based approach where words are studied in context versus isolation. Using scientific inquiry to study spelling instruction, SWI always starts with a word’s meaning and is taught using explicit multisensory instruction. 

Structured Word Inquiry board
Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) teaches and reinforces critical reading.
SWI dovetails well with our educational philosophy at EHS in that it teaches and reinforces critical thinking and can be individualized and organic because learning is based upon student interest. SWI can easily be taught within the structure of an Orton-Gillingham lesson. It helps to strengthen word attack skills while at the same time helping to teach students Greek and Latin roots; it is an ideal approach to use for students who are at the advanced levels of reading instruction.  

For a student whose primary need is to strengthen reading comprehension, the teacher may determine that it is best to use a comprehension program such as Lindamood Bell’s Visualization and Verbalization, Project Read, or other literature-based approaches.

The second pillar that plays an important role in supporting students in learning to read is assistive technology that helps students better understand what they are reading and helps them express themselves in writing. At Eagle Hill School, we are firm believers in the use of assistive technology, and we often are told by students and sometimes their parents that assistive technology helped them to read so much more in print than they previously had been able to do and to write much more readily than previously. Assistive technology is computer software, applications, or extensions that allow students assistance in accessing the written word.
Assistive Technology

Some are speech-to-text, meaning spoken words appear as printed text and some are text-to-speech, meaning printed text is read aloud. These assistive technology tools as well as many others help teachers more effectively engage and empower diverse learners. It provides independence to students who are able to access more challenging content and express ideas without the assistance of an adult. Using assistive technology can liberate readers, help close a writing gap, and keep students more engaged. 

The third pillar is independent reading, a common and very necessary part of the reading curriculum. Students are provided the time, space, and framework for independent reading in all of our reading courses. Depending upon the student’s level of independence, the amount of time allotted to independent reading varies among courses. As humans, we tend to enjoy activities that come naturally or easily.

So how do we encourage students with dyslexia to read? One of the best ways to improve reading along with direct instruction is simply to provide students with the time to read. For a student to be successful here, he or she need not complete worksheets, write book reports and/or summaries, or even answer comprehension questions.

Student Reading

The best way to get started is simply to spend time immersed in a book one is enjoying to the point she can’t put it down. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the best way to encourage reluctant readers is to let them read independently. However, as parents and educators, we must model, guide, and encourage this to happen. Sometimes students will say that they don’t like to read and have never voluntarily read a book for pleasure. Nancy Martin, former chair of the Reading Department at EHS, would then respond, “We haven’t found the right book for you yet.”

There are several necessary components for students to learn to read and enjoy independent reading. First, students must be matched with high interest and appropriate reading level versus grade level books. Second, they need to be given time to read independently, and third, they need access to books either in a classroom library, a school library, or a public library.

It is also important to note that not all students need to take a reading class at Eagle Hill School. Beyond instruction at this level, Eagle Hill offers a full range of courses for literary study, including traditional survey courses and special topics, such as biography, Jewish and Arab literatures, literature and the law, and literature and psychology. Each student also engages in the study of written composition, and the English Department administers a program of courses that targets academic writing and also allows for exploration in creative and expressive writing.


The Orton-Gillingham Approach is language-based, multisensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, and flexible.

  • The basic purpose of everything that is done in the Orton-Gillingham Approach is to assist the student to become a competent reader, writer, and independent learner.
  • Teaching begins with recognizing the differing needs of learners. While individuals with dyslexia share similarities, there are differences in their language needs.
  • An Orton-Gillingham lesson is diagnostic and prescriptive. It is diagnostic in that the instructor monitors the verbal, nonverbal, and written responses of the student to identify and analyze the student’s problems and progress. This information helps to plan the next lesson. The Lesson is prescriptive in the sense that it will contain instructional elements that focus on the resolution of the student’s difficulties and that build upon the student’s progress.
  • Direct instruction is an important and necessary part of the approach. The teacher presentations use lesson formats that ensure the student approaches the learning experience and understands what is to be learned, why it is to be learned, and how it is to be learned.
  • The Orgon-Gillingham Approach uses systematic phonics, stressing the alphabetic principle in the initial stages of reading development.
  • The Orton-Gillingham Approach draws upon applied linguistics not only in the initial decoding and encoding stages of reading and writing, but in more advanced stages dealing with syllabic, morphemic, syntactic, semantic, and grammar structures of language and our writing system.
  • The instructor presents information in an ordered way that indicates the relationship between the material taught and past material taught.
  • Step-by-step learners move from the simple, well-learned material to that which is more and more complex.
  • The Orton-Gillingham Approach provides for a close student-teacher relationship that builds self-confidence based on success.
 Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators. “What is the Orton-Gillingham Approach?” Orton-Gillingham Academy,

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  • The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.
  • Scientific inquiry is the only means by which we can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.
  • Understanding spelling directly benefits reading.
  • The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.


  • Studying a word family is exponentially more powerful than studying isolated words.
  • Starting with a word’s spelling rather than its pronunciation is the only way to make sense of the pronunciation of every English word.
  • Studying morphology (the system by which morphemes—bases and affixes—are combined to represent the meaning of words) and etymology (the study of the origin of words) from day one unlocks the meaning of unfamiliar words.

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What is Learning Diversity About?

Learning Diversity is a blog hosted by Eagle Hill School where educators, students, and other members of the LD community regularly contribute posts and critical essays about learning and living in spaces that privilege the inevitability of human diversity.

The contributors of Learning Diversity come together to engage our readers from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences and mathematics, athletics, and residential life. Embracing learning diversity means understanding and respecting our students as whole persons.

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